In many ways, Genesis is the most accessible book in Torah. The book surely contains stories which challenge credulity. It is, nonetheless, a very real book. As my teacher, Rabbi Norman Cohen teaches, Genesis is fundamentally a book about families and relationships within those families. In one of the several books he has written about Genesis, Self Struggle & Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives (Jewish Lights, 1996), Dr. Cohen unfolds how the families in Genesis mirror so many of the dimensions and conflicts we encounter within our own family relationships and experiences.
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9) brings us to the story of the birth Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Even in-utero, a hint is offered that these two children will be a challenging duo as we read:
“Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac pleaded with Adonai on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and Adonai responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived. However, the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of Adonai, and Adonai answered her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:20-23)
The theme of sibling rivalry prevails throughout the book of Genesis. Think about it. We’ve already read the stories of Cain and Abel, Ishamel and Isaac, and now Jacob and Esau. In a few short weeks we will read of Joseph and his brothers. Each set of siblings presents something of challenges which siblings have in the relationships within the constellation we know as the family.
Earlier this week I was fortunate to be included in a group of Jewish and Christian clergy who were brought together by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston and the Harvard Divinity School for a presentation by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. We were invited to come hear Rabbi Sacks discuss his most recent book, Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Schocken Books, 2015). While I have read a number of Rabbi Sacks’ earlier works, I had not yet read this one. (I am now!) Neither have I ever had the privilege of hearing him in person. His presentation offered a powerful, inspiring and insightful analysis of the world in which we live and religion’s use and misuse in our world. I came away believing that his is an important voice in our time when we see all too many challenging misuses of religion, and the teachings of religious traditions.
Both in his talk, and the book, Rabbi Sacks focuses on this week’s Torah portion as a place to focus in understanding our world and its troubles. Rabbi Sacks suggests that over the course of the book of Genesis, we are exposed to a dynamic which has long been the focus of examination through the work of students of human psychology such as Sigmund Freud and Rene Girard: the tension within families, most especially the tension between siblings. Citing Girard, Sacks writes: “Violence is born in what [Girard] calls mimetic desire. Mimetic desire is wanting what someone else has because they have it.” (Not in the Name, pg 87) Sacks goes on to suggest that this desire is not solely manifesting in wanting what someone else has, but is also an expression of “wanting to be what someone else is. Desiring ‘this man’s art, and that man’s scope,’ we wish we were them . . . [This] often leads to violence.” (page 88)
Sacks leads the reader through an examination of the Biblical sibling relationships mentioned above as a way of understanding how it is that we live in a world in which the three Abrahamic monotheistic faiths, which are in essence, sibling faiths, are so at odds. Using the Biblical tales as a backdrop against which to examine human history, and in particular the role of religion in that history, Sacks offers his reader a window into understanding why these relationships are so challenging in today’s world. He also offers suggestions for how we might change the dynamic by reclaiming religion from those who misuse it in the name of furthering their perverted goals of power and domination.
In our Torah portion this week we enter a new phase of these dynamics as they unfold in the story of our people, soon to be known as Yisrael, as in weeks to come Jacob will face his conflicted relationship with Esau, and might we say, God. I’ll be spending some of my Shabbat reading Sacks as I seek to uncover new insights from our ancient story as well as sustenance for facing the challenges of the world in which we live, towards which I turn my attention anew as a new week dawns.